Sorry Dr. Phil, We Are Having Sex--And Lots of It!

There is a new radio ad for the Oprah Winfrey Network’s new show Ask Oprah’s All Stars in which Dr. Phil proclaims “60% of you are not having sex!” Well, that is alarming. Who wants to live in a society where no one is getting laid? But, is this statistic true? And who, in the economic sense, are these people who are living sexless lives?


According to a recent report by Relationships Australia this statistic could very well be accurate if you only consider one segment of society – those living in low income households. 

They find that among survey respondents living in low income households (defined as having income less than $40,000 AUD), only 44% answered yes to the question “Would you consider yourself to be sexually active at the moment?” High income earners (earning more than $80,000 AUD), on the other hand, were almost twice as likely to be sexually active with 81% reporting saying they were.

Now, those who have been reading Dollars and Sex for a while should know that I don’t have a problem with the idea that economics is shaping people’s sex lives. But I have to admit to being pretty sceptical about these results and it’s because reliable data series from the US show a very different picture. You can argue all you want about national differences, but at the end of the day (and I literally mean “at the end of the day” when we crawl into bed) we are all pretty much the same. So I would expect to see at least some similar results between likewise reliable surveys even if they are collected from different populations.

The US General Social Surveys (GSS), which conducts confidential face-to-face interviews from a large (16,000 +) statistically representative, cross-section of society, asks respondents the question “How many times have you had sex in the previous months?” *

According to that data, Dr. Phil is far off the mark; only 18% of respondents reported having no sex in the previous twelve months (13% of men and 22% of women). And, while a few more only had sex once or twice in the past twelve months (8%), the vast majority of respondents had sex at least once a month.  Americans may not have rocking sex lives (only 8% of men and 6% of women report having sex 4 or more times a week), but they do have sex about 2 to 3 times per month on average.

Overall, income did not contribute to how often people had sex on average in the US series, but income does appear to increase celibacy. More individuals who reported themselves as having a lower-than-average income claimed they did not have sex in the last twelve months than did people who reported themselves as having a higher-than-average income. But the differences were much smaller than in the Australian data –22% for low-income earners as opposed to 14% for high-income earners.

So, there were very different results between the US and Australian data, and I can tell you why. The income in the Australian data is “household income”. In this era of dual income families, those who are married are far more likely to appear in the higher income brackets. Likewise, those who are single are more likely to appear in the lower income bracket. In the US data series unmarried people were far less sexually active; only 6% of married adults reported not having sex in the last year compared to 43% of non-married adults. So what appears to be an income effect on sexual activity in the Australian data is really just a marriage effect; unmarried households have both a lower income and a person who is more likely to be sexually inactive.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the Australian data series contains seniors as well who are also more likely to be sitting in the lower income category and sexually inactive (according to their own data only 25% of people over the age of 70 reported themselves to be sexually active).

I don’t know where Dr. Phil gets his evidence, but I don’t think we are living in a sexless society, not by a long shot.

*Blanchlower, D. and A, Oswald (2004). “Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 3, pp. 393-415

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